The Liberty Times Editorial: English should be second language

Thu, Sep 13, 2018 - Page 8

At a news conference last week, Premier William Lai (賴清德) responded to a suggestion from the Chinese National Federation of Industries (CNFI), saying that the government would implement a new policy this year to make Taiwan a bilingual nation speaking Chinese and English.

Taiwan has not legally defined an official language after the end of World War II, but Mandarin was used as the national language, while the use of other languages was banned, in effect making Mandarin the official language by default.

Now industry has suggested and the premier has concurred that English should be made a second language or an official language, which is a welcome development.

Taiwan is a multiethnic, multicultural society with the open and pioneering spirit of a maritime nation.

However, the post-war foreign regime used authoritarian methods to enforce Sinicization to denigrate the Taiwanese identity and suppress diversified development.

This was manifested in its language policy, which suppressed all mother tongues apart from the “national language” and called them “dialects.”

The long-standing exclusiveness of the “national language” has resulted in the decline or near-extinction of the mother tongues of ethnic groups.

Many Taiwanese cannot speak either their mother tongue or a foreign language, making it clear to what extent Taiwanese have been locked in the cage of “Sinicization,” making them introverted and giving them a narrow outlook on the world, and this has had a negative effect on the nation’s global competitiveness.

For Taiwan, an outward-looking and open-minded attitude and frequent contact with the international community is the way build healthy and vigorous development.

Linguistically speaking, the older prewar generation who received a Japanese education should be taken as model. Their generation spoke their native language, Japanese and the “national language.”

By comparison, the “Sinicized” generations who grew up after the war only speak the “national language,” and they have abandoned their mother tongue, while the outlook, tolerance and cultural heritage of the older generation was more extensive.

This allowed them to establish Taiwan’s economic wealth, democracy and human rights.

From this perspective, transitional justice should accomplish the preservation and revival of the native languages of different ethnic groups and connect the nation to the international community.

A native language passes on culture, while English is the language of the world and future. English has been the lingua franca of global commerce over the past 100 years and its importance has only increased after the world entered the Internet age.

On an individual level, English-language skills are necessary in every aspect from employment and career development to absorbing new knowledge and communicating with the international community.

According to a Harvard University study published five years ago, there is a close correlation between English skills and personal income, and they also lead to a higher standard of living.

On a national level, the high level of English-language proficiency in small and medium-sized nations, such as the Netherlands, Singapore, Ireland, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, has become a main selling point to attract foreign investment and it is given great attention in terms of international trade and economic performance.

If Taiwan is to shake off the economic and political difficulties resulting from its fixation on China — whether it is about boosting tourism, developing the New Southbound Policy or connecting to the EU and the US — the nation must direct its efforts toward gaining an understanding of the international situation and market, improving the economy and high technology, displaying its soft power to the international community, and improving its international visibility. All of this requires the overall improvement of English-language skills in Taiwan.

It is clear that the nation should abandon the exclusivity of the “national language,” end isolation and scrap the language policy that has for so long constrained its spirit by opening up to the international community.

Over the past week, some people have expressed their disagreement with the premier’s “bilingual nation” policy. Some of them have equated making English an official language to worshiping the UK and the US, labeling it “desinicization” and “light Taiwanese independence,” but these opinions are the result of an ideological standpoint rather than rational reasoning.

Some of the politicians, media outlets and academics helped the past party-state enforce the “national language” and bully speakers of native languages. Today, they are making irresponsible remarks about language-related transitional justice and the efforts toward connecting with the international community.

Some have said that implementing a second official language would entail issuing English versions of all official documents, adding that this would be a waste of national resources, while other have said that the first step should be to expand the English curriculum and course hours.

Others still worry that learning both their native language and English will cause children to confuse the languages.

All these concerns were addressed three years ago by Lai, during his stint as Tainan mayor, in connection with the implementation of a plan to make English a second official language.

He said at the time that it would not be possible to implement a language policy overnight, and that the focus should be on flexible, down-to-earth use and constant accumulation of language skills.

In practice, that means adopting 10-year targets, beginning with government departments, while building a foundation in elementary schools, encouraging the public to write bilingual shopping lists, using bilingual text on the divination bamboo sticks in temples and having bilingual conversations with taxi drivers.

The “Tainan experience” should be discussed and adjusted for implementation on a national level.

It should be stressed that to forge Taiwan into a bilingual Chinese-English nation, the fundamentals should be laid by the government through planning and effective implementation, and leading by example, while industry and business circles, which made the suggestion, should promote practical use.

A good example is Japanese automaker Honda, which has set 2020 as the year that English will become its official corporate language.

Business circles should also help employees improve their English skills, and include such skills when considering promotions and salary raises.

Similarly, saving native languages is not only the government’s responsibility. The household is the best place to pass on a native language, and situations where parents and grandparents speak the “national language” with their children and grandchildren should be avoided, as it is not beneficial to passing on a mother tongue.

Families and businesses have a responsibility to change the exclusive focus on the “national language.”

Translated by Perry Svensson